Sunday Brunch one year out 11062011

One year from today, voters across the nation will cast their ballots for President of the United States. Today I’ll discuss where a couple of the candidates go to church and some interesting trivia about Presidential church attendance. The comments will remain open for as long as you can act in a civilize manner, and not like a bunch of savages. If you like this, I may continue it as a regular feature.

Harry Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church near Washington, DC is a scholar on the black church and penned an article for the Wall Street Journal examining the theological underpinnings of the home churches of President Obama and Herman Cain.

Like President Obama, Mr. Cain belongs to a mostly black congregation with a black pastor. But that is where the similarities end. Stark differences between the political philosophies of these two men may be rooted in their profoundly different theological heritages. The churches both men are (or in the case of Mr. Obama, were) longtime members of are known for liberal activism, but with notable differences in their views of scripture.

Mr. Cain’s church, Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta, Ga., is theologically conservative, affirming the inerrancy of scripture and historic Christian creeds as literally true.

The Chicago church where President Obama belonged for 20 years, Trinity United Church of Christ, is theologically liberal, eschewing scriptural inerrancy and taking apostolic creeds as “testimonies” of faith, rather than literally, unchangeably true. The scriptures are seen more as “living documents” than permanent anchors and pillars of faith.

It’s a very well-written piece and I highly suggest reading it in its entirety.

Two articles in the national press discussed Cain’s home church in Atlanta, Antioch Baptist Church North, which in its 133-year history has grown from eight former slaves who prayed together into a 14,000 member congregation that sits on a campus of more than 15 acres and includes among its ministry the Gateway Apartment Community providing 261 low-income housing units.

The AJC article on Cain’s relationship to Antioch focused on the dissonance of members who support Cain personally while disagreeing with his politics.

“As far as [Cain’s] politics goes, not everyone [in the church] agrees with that,” said church member Monroe Scott. “It’s kind of interesting to see a black man running against a black man.

“He’s a native son that we’ve known for many years,” said Scott, leaving services recently at the church near Northside Avenue, close to the Georgia Dome. “But this is kind of weird.”

Some, like Joe Beasley, a deacon, chose their words carefully.

“Mr. Cain is a friend of mine and a fellow church member,” said Beasley, the Southern director of Rainbow/PUSH, a social and civil rights organization created by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. “I respect him for what he’s doing. I wish him well.”

The people who go to Antioch Baptist North love Cain, said state Sen. Valencia Seay, D-Riverdale. She joined the church in 1959, and remembers Cain as a young man.

“We’re all proud of him,” said Seay. “I’m sure he is led to serve, and I wish him the best.”

“But I cannot vote for him,” Seay said. “My president is already in office.”

CNN’s Belief Blog also suggested that Cain’s church is an audience his politics may not appeal to.

At Antioch, Cain has had to share the pews with fiery critics of the Republican Party like Joe Beasley, a man born to sharecroppers who once said he’s been called the “N-word” more times than he can count.

Beasley is a deacon at Antioch and serves as Southern regional director for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He also knows Cain and has no problem with his presence at Antioch.

“We’re good friends. He’s a great speaker and a great singer. He has a great love for the church,” Beasley says.

Beasley says he doesn’t talk politics with Cain, though.

“I respect him – and I want to keep my respect for him,” Beasley says.

Beasley, who worked with Cain on his unsuccessful 2004 run for one of Georgia’s U.S. Senate seats, says Antioch’s acceptance of the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO is not unusual. It’s an attitude, he says, that starts at the top with Alexander.

“The reverend’s position is when we open the door, whosoever comes, let them come,” Beasley says.

CNN also noted conservative theology of Antioch:

The black church has long been a paradox. It is one of the most politically liberal but theologically conservative institutions in the black community. Cain’s house of worship embodies some of these contradictions.

Antioch is a member of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., a denomination in which some churches do not ordain women. The denomination’s leadership publicly broke with King over his civil rights activism.

Earlier this year, Cain gave an extended interview to Christianty Today about his faith and the campaign he was considering embarking upon.

What would you say to those who see government assistance as one avenue through which our society can help the poor and the oppressed, as Christ commanded?

Christ empowered people. He didn’t make them dependent. That’s the difference. And I’ve said we must go from an entitlement society to an empowerment society. Programs today are designed to make people more dependent rather than less dependent. When Jesus gave three servants talents—this is in Matthew, the story of the ten talents, the five talents, and the one talent—he expected them to go out and use those talents to multiply those talents. And the servant that got the one talent sat on it, did not multiply it, and he was chastised by Christ. So that is the parable that suggests Jesus didn’t want people to be dependent.

Jesus could have sat there and said, “Okay, when you use up those talents”—and that could have been food, it could have been water, shelter—”come back and I’ll give you some more.” No. He wanted them to go out and use them to multiply them. And so I believe that Christ wants people to be empowered to help themselves.

Researching for this post, I came across an article about President Obama’s decision to attend chapel services at Camp David rather than finding a home church in Washington.

[I]n an unexpected move, Obama has told White House aides that instead of joining a congregation in Washington, D.C., he will follow in George W. Bush’s footsteps and make his primary place of worship Evergreen Chapel, the nondenominational church at Camp David.

A number of factors drove the decision — financial, political, personal — but chief among them was the desire to worship without being on display. Obama was reportedly taken aback by the circus stirred up by his visit to 19th Street Baptist in January. Lines started forming three hours before the morning service, and many longtime members were literally left out in the cold as the church filled with outsiders eager to see the new President.

One day I was speaking with a member of the Georgia House in the CLOB and noticed a photo on the wall of a young child with what looked like Richard Nixon. Since I was standing in a Democrat’s office I thought it curious and asked about the photo. I was told that President Nixon had church services at the White House and their family had attended when the photo was taken.

In fact, Nixon held the services in the East Room of the White House and Rev. Billy Graham preached at the first of what became regular 11 AM services most Sundays. Also preaching in Nixon’s White House was Norman Vincent Peale, (.pdf) one of my favorite writers.

[Totally random notes] (1) It’s interesting to me that the same Joe Beasley who was arrested earlier this week in support of Occupy Atlanta was involved in Herman Cain’s 2004 Senate bid; (2) I am surprised that Senator Valencia Seay was old enough to be joining a church in 1959; she’s always been a kind whenever I’ve spoken to her; (3) at the time of the Obamas decision to make Camp David’s chapel their home church, the Chaplain was Lt. Carey Cash, great-nephew of Johnny Cash; and (4) the photo at top ran in the October 5, 2011 edition of The United Methodist Reporter.

14 comments

  1. Free Range says:

    The rest of the world is increasingly secular, and they rightly scoff of the American obsession with a politician’s religious superstitions. My everyday observation is there is no difference in the relative morality of a “believer” and a regular person, I have to admit, however, that a candidate’s religious beliefs are not entirely irrelevant – I would never vote for a religious zealot of any stripe.

    • +1 – and when my daughter learns the pledge of allegiance, she’ll learn about the fact that the pledge didn’t always contain the words “under God” and that it’s okay to adopt the original version instead of the modified version if she so chooses.

  2. rense says:

    1. If you are looking for a scholar on the black church, I suggest Thabiti Anyabwile (thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile) or Anthony Bradley (bradley.chattablogs.com) as opposed to Harry Jackson. Anyabwile’s “The Decline of African American Theology: From Biblical Faith to Cultural Captivity”, published in 2007, is a must read for those interested in issues concerning the contemporary black church.

    2. Cain’s application of the parable of the talents – and of the purpose and ministry of Jesus Christ in general – is absolutely wretched, even blasphemous. I call it “conservative liberation theology.” When he says “And so I believe that Christ wants people to be empowered to help themselves” … that is not conservative Christianity, but Benjamin Franklin “God helps those who helps themselves” deism that couldn’t be further from the gospel message. The black church (nor the white church, the yellow church, the brown church, the red church, the blue church, the green church) shouldn’t just simply exchange one form of false theology (the Jesse Jackson/Jeremiah Wright/Al Sharpton one) for what Cain is promoting. If there is an argument for separating church and state, this is an example of it, not because of the threat that the church poses to the state, but the threat that politics poses to legitimate Christian theology. That the predominantly Christian west became so wealthy and powerful and made all these advances in science, culture and what have you … a happenstance of history that has nothing to do with the Bible or legitimate Christianity whatsoever, and proof of this should be how non-Christian Asian countries (i.e. Buddhist/Hindu India and communist China plus Taiwan) are now becoming economic powerhouses, and how Shinto/Buddhist Japan was one until they wrecked their economy by emulating the European Keynesians.

    So, if given the choice between the theology of Herman Cain and the theology of Barack Obama, I would say “none of the above” because the lake of fire is hot and eternal.

    • Harry says:

      I don’t understand how it is a Christian value for the government to take my money and give it to another. Maybe it would be a Christian value if I voluntarily and responsibly did it myself.

    • “So, if given the choice between the theology of Herman Cain and the theology of Barack Obama, I would say “none of the above” because the lake of fire is hot and eternal.”

      Only the Flying Spaghetti Monster can save you. Ramen.

  3. Todd Rehm says:

    Rense-

    I appreciate your comments.

    As for the parable of the talents, I think I come down somewhere between Cain and you.

    I do believe that Christ’s mission is served when we help another person to become self-sufficient. My church operates a mission where we help a small number of homeless people to get what they need to find and hold a job including clothes, training, counseling, etc., assist them into housing and eventually to their own apartment, and generally get them back to living a full life. This requires a greater investment of time, money and other resources in an individual but it can lead to a better, sustainable outcome. Where people have most of the ingredients to put their lives together and need a little help to get them over the hump, it’s entirely compatible with my Christianity to do so.

    I believe that a person of faith can have honest misgivings about whether government assistance is the way to best help people. My misgivings stem more from the conviction that government doesn’t do a great job of providing some services. I am, of course more likely to believe someone honestly believes private charity is the best means of providing assistance when they are actively involved in doing something about social problems through a private organization.

    But when the idea of people being self- sufficient is merely an excuse to shirk our duty to “[g]ive to everyone who begs from you,” it’s not compatible with what I believe are my responsibilities. And there are individuals for whom self-sufficiency is simply unlikely.

    I will say that Cain’s church appears to be doing an admirable job and Cain appears to be truly involved in the work of Antioch.

    • Harry says:

      I can understand that some Christians advocate that it is the responsibility of government to take my taxes and give it to a less fortunate (or more fortunate?) person. However, it should be clear that such advocacy is an interjection of one’s personal (i.e. Christian) beliefs into government policy. If I advocate against Sunday retail sales of alcohol and consumption of alcohol, I am attacked on the basis of “putting forward a Christian agenda” and “being opposed to separation of church and state” – no matter what my real reasons may entail.

      You have admitted that it is acceptable to allow one’s personal and/or religious beliefs to influence one’s advocacy of public policy. I applaud your honesty even though my own personal belief system is that government has absolutely no business setting one size fits all policy to give entitlements to anyone. Maybe there is a role for government in extreme cases where no support is forthcoming from family, friends, church, and community; and children are literally starving….but otherwise no. We cannot afford it.

    • “I do believe that Christ’s mission is served when we help another person to become self-sufficient. My church operates a mission where we help a small number of homeless people to get what they need to find and hold a job including clothes, training, counseling, etc., assist them into housing and eventually to their own apartment, and generally get them back to living a full life. This requires a greater investment of time, money and other resources in an individual but it can lead to a better, sustainable outcome. Where people have most of the ingredients to put their lives together and need a little help to get them over the hump, it’s entirely compatible with my Christianity to do so.”

      While I may not share your spiritual beliefs, from my readings of the Bible this is exactly what Christ taught. It’s like the old Chinese proverb – “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Giving is more than just giving money to an organization and pawning off the responsibility to take care of others onto them. Giving is giving of your time and efforts as well. Jesus didn’t pay others to help those in need so he could kick back with a cup of wine and watch the football game… he went out there and actually helped people.

      More Christians need to learn this lesson. If they did, this Gandhi quote may not necessarily reflect my opinion so much – “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

  4. rense says:

    Todd and Harry:

    Now I could talk about what the Bible says about government, politics and economics but that would be a distraction from the main point, which is that this parable – and the message of Jesus Christ in general – has NOTHING (practically) to do with money. (Now I qualified that with “practically” but I won’t get into it because it would be a distraction.)

    This is what that parable is ACTUALLY about. The people who receive the talents represent Christians. All actual Christians have God’s spirit – the Holy Spirit – living in them. Which means that all actual Christians will show evidence of having the Holy Spirit. THAT is what multiplying the talents means … it means exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Love, Joy, Peace, Longsuffering, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control). Now in this parable, only the ones who were legitimately Christians, the ones who actually had God’s spirit living within them, multiplied the talents. Why? Because it isn’t really the Christian who multiplies the talents, but it is God’s spirit within the Christian that multiplies the talents. But the person who says that he is a Christian but is not cannot multiply the talents, because he lacks God’s spirit – again who actually multiplies the talents – inside him. Not every Christian is going to show the same amount of fruit or evidence, but they will all show SOME. So, on judgment day, this person masquerading as a Christian is exposed by the absence of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. That’s what the parable actually means. And that is ALL that it means. And for Cain to take that parable, a spiritual teaching about the kingdom of heaven and those who are in it – and those who aren’t – and turn it into some political text … how is that any different from what the theological liberals do? And when Cain says that the text means that Jesus Christ doesn’t want us to be dependent … excuse me but the meaning of this parable is the kingdom of heaven and salvation. The Bible makes it clear that we are to be utterly, totally dependent on God for salvation and NOT ourselves, to be like little children, grace not works. The LAST THING that we need is for someone to read this parable about the kingdom of heaven, hear Herman Cain’s self-reliance application of it, and get the messages confused on this faith, works, faith plus works thing. Cain is an ordained minister, and he KNOWS the danger of what he is doing – or at least he should know.

    My opinion: the religious right is a bigger source of heresy than the religious left. The reason is that the religious left makes no claim to the inerrancy, inspiration or authority of the Bible. Take Jeremiah Wright. He follows James Cone. Well, James Cone said that any God that didn’t need agree with his political beliefs and aspirations needed to be killed (in a postmodern, deconstructionist sense) and replaced with a new God who did. In my opinion, people like that constitute no “real” threat because they are open about their treating the Bible as toilet paper. Instead, the religious right is the real danger because they claim to be theologically conservative on one hand while pushing heresies of their own on the other.

    Case in point: take Focus on the Family. Family values and all that. Reconcile that with Luke 14:27 and Matthew 10:34-37. Another issue (that hits closer to what Cain is trying to do) go reconcile the economic message advocated by most religious conservatives with James 2:1-9. Whether the wolf spreading heresy is a Democrat or Republican, he is still a wolf, and by the words of the ordained minister Cain, Republican wolves are doing more damage than the Democratic ones.

    • Harry says:

      Where did I say that you said it? You say you’re not on the same page with Cain. I wanted to make the point that I take an opposite view from people (Christians?) on the other side taking a position that government has a substantive role in doling out welfare.

  5. chief alewife says:

    I would like to see Rense’s commentary on the parable of the prodigal son, the one I have always found most troubling.

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